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'Disliking' Facebook

August 20, 2011

Data protection authorities in northern Germany have decried the social networking website Facebook and threatened to slap heavy fines on any third-party website that uses a Facebook "like" button.

Facebook's logo with a thumbs-down icon
Facebook got one big 'dislike' in northern GermanyImage: di.slik.es/dacebook/DW

The privacy commissioner for the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, Thilo Weichert, announced on Friday, August 19, that he would go after private and public sites featuring Facebook's "like" button, which allows web users to rate the websites they encounter.

Weichert argues that this popular function breaches privacy by making it possible for the social networking giant to guess user preferences and opinions by compiling a profile of all the sites marked on one computer.

Weichert's office, which operates independently of Schleswig-Holstein's state government, has long advised webmasters "informally that many Facebook offerings are illegal," according to Weichert. "Unfortunately, up to now, this has prevented few providers from using the offerings," he said.

The data protection agency could slam websites operating in Schleswig-Holstein with up to 50,000 euros ($72,000) if they continue to use the "like" button or manage fan pages on Facebook's website after the end of September.

Angela Merkel's picture on a computer screen with the word Facebook
Even top German politicians like Angela Merkel use FacebookImage: dpa

Intense discussions

The announcement came as a surprise to the state government. Schleswig-Holstein State Secretary Arne Wulff pledged to discuss the matter "intensely" with his counterparts from Germany's other federal states.

"Political communication these days also takes place on the Internet," Wulff said, emphasizing that the state's government and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel used Facebook to encourage political involvement from the public.

Facebook, meanwhile, flatly rejected Weichert's claim that it breaches privacy law. The company said it does receive technical data that could be used to identify each user computer - but that it deletes this information within 90 days in compliance with European Union law.

Facebook is the world's biggest social networking website with some 750 million registered users. "Like" votes help the company sell advertisement and allow third-party websites to tell who is accessing their pages.

Author: David Levitz (AFP, dpa, ots)

Editor: Toma Tasovac